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Keling: Of Kelings, Bangalis & Mamas

Contributed by Anonymous on Sunday, October 30 @ 01:59:35 CDT

CommunityBy Narayana Narayana, New

One can only sympathise with playwright Mr. Vadi PVSS that the reaction to his forthcoming play titled "Shanmugam - The Keling Kia Trilogy" has, at this preliminary stage, been hostile -- even though it is confined to a very small section.

It appears that plays put up by the minority races seem to stoke more heat than one would normally expect, and that too from within the particular community!

One could reasonably suspect that this is because others are unaware or unconcerned about the issue.

It seems that what is objectionable is the (one-time common) Hokkien term, 'Keling Kia', to describe the South Indian Tamil.

To those who are unable to make the further subtle distinctions, the phrase was used for the dark(er)-skinned, usually employed in lowly menial or 'coolie' jobs.

The fairer Indian - mainly traders from the North-west - were dignified as 'Bombay people' with practically all other Northerers coming under the all-embracing 'Bangali', with a further slight distinction (or discrimination) made for the turbaned Sikhs as 'Bangali tonchet'.

The ubiquitous Tamil and Malabaree Muslim vendors and hawkers went under the generic umbrella of 'mamas'.

While some of these sobriquets were merely descriptive, or distinctive, 'kling' and its Chinese extension 'Keling Kia' tended to be pejorative, and became applicable over time to any dark-skinned Indian whose origin was uncertain to others.

The two most common explanations advanced for this (at one time highly opprobrious) term were, one, that it was applied to those coming from the South Indian kingdom/locale of 'Kalinga'.

The other, and less charitable, was, as Singapore was originally a penal settlement for Indian convicts who were shackled by chains, which produced a 'clink' sound, the epithet came to be applied to everybody of that race.

Its usage was in active prevalence until Malay, and Chinese dialects, came to be phased out in Singapore to be replaced by Mandarin.

Whether one finds the word 'offensive' or not depends largely on individual perception, and personal experiences.

The Straits Times quotes lawyer Rajan Chettiar as 'among those in the Indian community who do not find the word 'keling' offensive'.

Well, I too have moved fairly extensively with colleagues who addressed me familiarly as 'keling' without my feeling offended or insulted; but I would take offence if they referred to other Indians whom they did not know at all with the label 'Keling Kia'.

If Mr. Rajan Chettiar comes from the same stock as the well-known money-lenders, he may find himself in a similarly invidious position if called by the derogatory term 'Ah Long San' for loansharks, which apparently has its roots from that particular community of Indians.

Mr. Chettiar is correct that 'the Indian community here also has its own words for other communities' and so the question eventually devolves only on how thick one's individual skin is in these matters. In primary school (in British colonial times), we quickly learnt the catchy ditty, "Red, white and blue; your mother is a Jew; your father is a Chinaman and so are youuuu".

None of my Chinese classmates ever took it personally, but this passed with early schooldays, unlike 'keling' and 'Keling Kia' which carried on throughout life.

No doubt 'keling' was in its origins an easy term of reference among the uneducated, and to this extent largely excusable.

The controversy (if it can be called that) over the name of Mr. Vadi's play is probably of only academic interest. There can be few left who can still connect with what was once an objectionable epithet applied over a large community, and even fewer who know of it at all now.

Mr. Vadi says he is prepared to modify the title to 'Shanmugam - The Kling Trilogy' leaving out the 'kia' in an effort to appease detractors.

He is naive.

The word that displeased people was 'Keling', which is unlikely to change even if the spelling is altered to 'Kling", and even if there is a 'Tanjong Kling Road in Jurong'.



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